When you think about digital disruption, Uber-like firms come to mind: digital businesses blindsiding well-entrenched industries like taxis, hotels, or razors with new business models and experiences anchored on a simple strategy — value creation — now defined by convenience, speed, surprise and delight, and personalization. But customer-obsessed success stories run deeper than just upending the market competition with new technology. The blueprint relies on leadership willing to challenge the status quo; strategies accelerating growth by constantly reimagining customer experiences; and operating models that act as finely tuned prototypes rather than static machines.
Businesses that place technology, agility, and design at the core are not new but are far and few between. Even at Forrester, we find ourselves quoting Amazon, Apple, JetBlue, and USAA over and over. Perhaps the urgency for companies just hasn’t been there. Consider retail: The current “apocalypse” is due to rapid changes in purchase patterns, not an unhealthy economy. Consumers use technologies that support convenience and put a higher value on CX. The bar for all brands rises each time customers come across a new experience that unexpectedly delights. That’s great news for consumers, because their empowerment spawns innovation and retires the likes of RadioShack and Sears, which chose complacency over customer obsession.
Our healthy economy will only mask the impact of mediocre experiences for so long. When customer empowerment meets an inevitable period of financial anxiety, expectations of quality and value will magnify, subpar experiences will draw ire, and hyperadoption will shift into overdrive as consumers frantically search for the best and most valuable brand experience. Firms that neglect the customer will suffer the brunt of the future economic hardship. Those who think differently will seize the opportunity to put innovation and investment efforts into high gear — not to stave off the competition but to starve it.
A new class of leaders is emerging, with the skills and traits tailored to take advantage of these dynamics, challenging tried and tested models of how executives behave and businesses are run. These leaders still focus on the bottom line but emphasize experiences that embrace both employees and customers as catalysts to growth.
Whether you are a seasoned executive or up-and-coming star, keep these leadership and strategy maxims in mind:
- Break barriers. True customer obsession requires a vision that is broad, deep, and at times controversial. This means that an aligned leadership team obsessed with culture is a prerequisite. New responsibilities and levels of accountability will be created, roles will be expanded that cut across silos, and relationships will be shaped by new ways of working. This can create friction; but this is healthy. The right dose of friction will spark a fire under any stale leadership and propel strategy.
- Liberate talent; don’t write more rules. Leadership designed for command, control, and stability proves woefully ineffective at enabling a strategy designed for customer obsession. What looks like tradition could prove reckless, as competition is always emerging and rewriting the rules that guided your company in the past. Granting latitude for quick decisions and action, especially from frontline employees, is crucial to delivering great customer experience — and mandatory when it comes to inspiring creativity.
- Be a model of behavior. Remember, actions speak louder than words. So while canned statements during town hall meetings might garner applause, involving yourself in customer-facing activities or demanding rewards directly tied to customer-obsessed outcomes will more likely inspire others to live up to the example. All leaders must model customer obsession in their own actions to empower employees at every level.
- Put innovation on display. To talk about innovation without doing it is like telling someone about a great book you never read. If you don’t innovate, be assured that your competitors — and startups that aren’t even on your radar yet — will. Shake things up by using design to think differently about your business. Don’t drop new frameworks into the mix without following through: Set new standards for speed using the agile concepts that work for your firm. Inject a little instability into your organization so that creativity becomes common law and making something new every day is celebrated.
Honing these customer-obsessed leadership skills will drive the strategy and operations practices that prepare, build, and grow businesses in the age of the customer. Forrester’s vision for the customer-obsessed enterprise is the prelude to the upcoming playbook featuring three competencies: leadership, strategy, and operations.